Georgia’s proposed foreign agent laws spark fears of NGO crackdown
Advocates say they’re emulating the best Western practices. Critics fear the inspiration comes from Russia.
Published by Eurasianet
On New Year’s Eve, the People’s Power movement, led by MPs who formally quit the ruling Georgian Dream party last year, announced their intention to table a bill that would compel foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign influence agents.
The group claims the bill copies Western laws, but some warn it foretells a descent into the oppressive practices of neighboring Russia.
The laws will “form a register of foreign influence agents, where registration will be mandatory for all relevant NGOs and other subjects that are financed from foreign sources and aim to influence public decision-making and public opinion formation in Georgia,” the group said in a December 29 statement.
The proposed law also envisages “comprehensive financial revenue and expense declarations” and “direct state involvement in a number of processes that foresee privileging foreign-funded physical or legal entities.”
The authors claim the bill is based on “American laws” while also copying “best practices of various other democratic countries.”
Some governments have cited the U.S.’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and other American statutes to justify tighter “foreign agent” laws to help them curb dissent.
The most prominent example is Russia, which first introduced such laws in 2012 and eventually used them to silence many critical media and non-governmental actors.
“When they were adopting this law in Russia, the law about foreign agents, it was the exact same story there, they used to say precisely that this was an analog of [the laws in] the United States,” Nona Kurdovanidze, Head of Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a prominent local NGO, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service in a January 3 interview.
This initiative to copy Western practices comes from a group, People’s Power, that has built its very identity on attacking and spreading conspiracy theories about the West, in particular the U.S.
People’s Power emerged last summer, when several MPs formally left the ruling party to “speak the truth” more openly. But the MPs remain in the Georgian Dream-led parliamentary majority and have been seen attending party meetings.
In months that followed, the group regularly produced lengthy open letters advancing a so-called “second front” conspiracy about the West trying to drag Georgia into the Russia-Ukraine war.
The MPs made Kelly Degnan, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, their special target. People’s Power suggested that she tried to blackmail Bidzina Ivanishvili – Georgian Dream’s billionaire founder who is widely seen as the country’s informal leader – into getting Georgia involved in the war. The group further accused her of supporting opposition and civil society forces seeking to stir unrest in Georgia, again with the ultimate purpose of opening a second front with Russia.
Some of the country’s most prominent NGOs became another target. While the relationship between them and the ruling party has long been strained, things took a turn for the worse when Georgia failed to receive European Union candidate status last year.
Some representatives of these NGOs joined protests that followed, calling for the resignation of the government and its replacement by a provisional government that would work toward addressing the 12 recommendations on which Brussels conditioned eventual granting of candidate status.
The ruling party and its allies responded by dismissing the work of those NGOs as politicized and refusing to cooperate with some of them on the relevant EU-requested reforms.
Early in September, Georgian Dream and pro-government groups started increasingly questioning the funding sources and transparency of what they now called “rich NGOs,” including local watchdogs such as Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED).
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said the expenses of these organizations were “untransparent,” creating “risks” for the country.
And then in November the same voices claimed most American foreign aid for Georgia went to NGOs. The remarks followed criticism of the state of democracy in Georgia by several U.S. senators who mooted rethinking assistance for the country. This is when People’s Power first floated the idea of introducing foreign agent laws.
“The biggest share of the U.S. funding is directed towards NGOs, which means that this money benefits not our country, but their own agents,” the group said in a November 18 statement.
The idea then drew criticism, including from Ambassador Degnan, who said the initiativewas reminiscent of “what we see happening to NGOs in Russia.” She also emphasized Washington’s extensive non-political aid to Georgia, inviting the ruling party and its allies to “ask any of the hazelnut farmers or the blueberry farmers or the dairy farmers” about the support they have been receiving from the United States.
A 2021 report by the Congressional Research Service – a federal body that assists American lawmakers with research and analysis – described Georgia as “a leading recipient of U.S. foreign and military aid in Europe and Eurasia.” In recent years, Georgia has received over $130 million in bilateral State Department and USAID assistance annually, including $35-40 annually in foreign military financing. In July, State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters the U.S. has allocated a total of “almost $6 billion in assistance funds” for Georgia over the years.
Currently, USAID lists dozens of ongoing programs in Georgia, focused on agriculture, economy, confidence-building, education, and democratic development, among others. The partners vary from state institutions and international organizations to non-governmental and private business actors.
People’s Power says they will be tabling their foreign agent bill in January, but it remains unclear whether their allies in the ruling party will back it.
But critics believe the rhetoric has already done damage and is part of a wider government campaign to discredit the watchdogs.
“Regardless of whether the parliament backs it, announcing this bill – including in the parliamentary space – as well as tabling it is already detrimental to the country’s interests,” GYLA’s Kurdovanidze said.
And should such laws be indeed adopted, Kurdovanidze fears that they will expand to cover other critical voices as well, including media, as the Russian experience has shown.
“If anyone now thinks that this is only directed against NGOs, they are very mistaken, because we know how this can unfold.”